If Kites Could Fly to the Future, What Would They Find?

If only Benjamin could see this…

The Control Room
The Control Room

These are photographs from a small series published by CNET that focuses on a power grid control room. As one can imagine, managing the flow of electrical energy across somewhere the size of New England could be a bit…complicated. And so one can see from some kind of network map (perhaps?) on the main display. At the very least I can make no sense of it.

Voltage Map (right) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)
Voltage Map (center) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)

On the other hand, I only wonder what would happen if Homer were sitting behind a bank of those monitors?

Photographs by Martin LaMonica, CNET

It’s Hard to be a Saint in Hell

Perhaps the 21st century version of the Pentagon papers, the ‘War Logs’, as they are being called, consist of some 90,000 classified documents centring on the Afghanistan War. While they do not paint a necessarily different picture from what is known publicly, the War Logs do provide interesting glimpses into the war, a war that, like any other, is a messy and ugly business despite the polish of design, propaganda, and the media.  To put it differently and perhaps in another sense, the War Logs offer depth down to the ground-level, unpleasant details of warzone combat. But the documents lack an overall, strategic-level—I daresay antiseptic—breadth of understanding. The War Logs suffer from a lack of the broader context—but they do provide useful and interesting stories, vignettes, and anecdotes that flesh out the story we all broadly know.

The Guardian is one of three main newspapers that received the leaks in advance; the others were the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. And one of the things the Guardian did was create an interactive piece exploring improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and where and when they occurred in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

While I understand the use of Google maps, I always see the map as a distraction. For example, why in a story about Afghanistan do I need to see a map that includes the small cities of India. To some degree, the same can be said about the bordering countries like Iran and Pakistan—but as those countries are along the border and are to varying degrees involved in the action, their inclusion can be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Guardian Piece on IEDs
Guardian Piece on IEDs

Choice of map aside, the piece  highlights the detonation of IEDs as circles whose area reflects the number of casualties. The colour of each circle represents which ‘group’ of people had the most casualties: civilians, Coalition soldiers, or Afghan soldiers. However, by reducing the data to a single circle of a single colour, we lose the potential added depth of breaking down the event into the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike. Do I have an instant solution on hand? No. But I do note that if one clicks on the specific event, a window appears that breaks down the event into said figures.

One of the more interesting things about this whole story is that at least the Guardian is putting out the data as a spreadsheet. Perhaps in the near to intermediate future those with the time and inclination will take that information and make something truly interesting for the public’s consumption.

The Name’s Bond…

The Washington Post has released an in-depth article, or series of articles, about the intelligence community of the United States and its growth since 11 September 2001. There are several visualisations of data and relationships between government agencies and companies along with a video introduction and, well, a traditional written article or two.

A Screenshot of an Interactive Piece of the Article
A Screenshot of an Interactive Piece of the Article

Overall, the piece is quite interesting to look through—although I have not yet had the time to do just that. Some of the visualisations appear a bit thin. But, that may be just because I have not yet had time to play with them enough to draw out any particular insights.

What is nice, however, is again having visualisations supporting editorial content in such a fashion.

Oil and Water

We all know about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and so there is no need to rehash what has already been said. However, I do want to point out the continuing and evolving coverage from the New York Times. At the outset they located the spill on a map and began to add interactivity to the map in order to show change over time.

When I returned to the NYT for the latest—after admittedly more than a few days away—I discovered that an interactive supplemental to news articles had transformed into an interactive article in a sense. The story is broken into different chapters or components and each of these chapters uses graphics or photographs or videos to explain just what is going, what happened, and what the effects may be.

The site is worth checking out, though it shall take more than a few minutes to read and look through. But it evidences how the smart use of charts, graphics, and photos can be combined with well written prose to tell a great—or in this case perhaps tragic is more the word—story.

The New York Times' Latest Update
The New York Times' Latest Update

Frisky New York

Today the New York Times published an in-depth examination of NYPD stops of individuals ‘based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime’. The item includes a lengthy article; a printed, full-page information graphic; and an online, interactive piece from which the printed piece appears to be derived. The print piece is credited to Ford Fessenden and Janet Roberts, the online piece to the same along with Matthew Bloch.

Print Version

Print Version
Print Version

Online Version

Screenshot of the Online Version
Screenshot of the Online Version

Each version of the information graphic centres upon a street map of the five boroughs. Data for the number of stops is graphed at the appropriate addresses, thus making a geographically-correct map appropriate for the type of data. What is interesting is that a decision was made to represent the number of stops by means of the area of circles presumably centred upon the address or the street—each police stop is encoded into the circle by an incremental edit to the circle’s radius. This is despite the fact that area is less than an ideal means of discerning comparisons between discrete datapoints. I am left to wonder if other means of representing the data could have been perhaps more effective. Perhaps if individual streets were coloured according to a carefully crafted distribution one could see a better examination of individual streets. For while absolute fidelity would be lost in grouping datapoints into bins, individual streets and intersections would become far more visible and, perhaps, accessible. Perhaps there are even other ways of representing the data that are not so readily apparent to me.

And while on the topic of street-specific data, an interesting point about these pieces is that the online piece displays the circles atop a desaturated Google map of the region whereas the print piece is atop a stripped-down outline of the five boroughs. Some of this may well be due to the difference between the screen and print resolutions. However, I find that the Google map is distracting for displaying too much in a nearly garish fashion. To the designers’ credit, they reduced much of those distracting elements by eliminating colour from the equation. However, and perhaps this is an issue of personal aesthetics, the map is still competing too much with the circles. Despite the reduction in quality on the newsprint, I prefer the print version of the map.

That all, of course, assumes that one is looking at the full picture of the city. The online version allows one to zoom into particular neighbourhoods and intersections. To some degree this alleviates the clutter of Google’s maps but for the loss of realising the larger message. From my perspective, the printed piece provides a more interesting view of the whole story, for the large map is clearer through the reduction of extraneous map data but the interesting neighbourhood stories are highlighted on the large map with the most interesting given a detailed review. And it is in this review that the specific features of street names, buildings, &c. are made available to the audience. Indeed, the detailed look at Brownsville, Brooklyn is not available in the same level of clear, concise depth as it is in the online version.

Another advantage of the print format is the ability to present the map in a larger context and integrate stories and supplemental charts in the white space carved out by the natural geography of the boroughs. Combined, these elements occupy all the space above the fold whereas in the browser windows I used at both work and at home, only the map and one story for the selected neighbourhood is immediately visible. Thus the print’s integration, albeit made at the expense of the online’s interactive map, makes for a more inviting initial experience.

The remainder of the print and online versions are largely the same with the exception of the detail about Brownsville—which, as aforenoted, is available as a subset of of the online map and is provided outright in the print version. The space of the print version allows for the charting elements to be laid out amongst two columns whereas the online version is a single, vertical column down the webpage. Between the two versions, the largest difference is colour. I would suspect this is due to the differences in fidelity between printing the charts and viewing the charts online. I think both colours work in their respective medium.

Of the remaining graphics, the most interesting is that which displays the breakdown of stops by age in comparison to the city’s population as broken down by age. The first interesting point is the omission of a vertical scale; I can only assume that the scales are identical in both positive and negative directions. I did, however, readily understand the chart. Some may not ‘get it’ as quickly as one is asked to add the city population as it heads in a typically ‘negative’ direction. However, that the entire piece is designed to invite one to explore the statistics in detail, I think creating charts that may require some to think just a few seconds more are perfectly acceptable.

When the information graphic is combined with the whole of the article, the New York Times has again pulled off an impressive feat of editorial design that combines adeptness at the use of the English language with video and photography—from the associated multimedia from the article—along with the here-critiqued information design. Such level of depth provides a well-rounded examination of the issue or subject at hand and better informs the audience by way of both anecdote and fact while photography brings the audience visually into the story.

New New York

Not quite of the New Earth (and therefore the 15th reincarnation of New York) variety, but, with maps being a key means of defining a city, state, or country, when a map is changed its meaning can also be changed. So, the new MTA map for New York presents some interesting changes summarised in this piece by the New York Times.


When you compare the new map to the most recent, a few things stand out. The blue is much brighter—which I think detracts from the purpose of communicating rail routes over land—for starters. Beyond that we see that the boroughs are all larger with the exception of Staten Island. An unfortunate implication is that reducing the prominence of Staten Island on the map will, well reduce the prominence of the island to those who ride the MTA. To be fair, that is likely an acceptable trade-off given what I understand about the demographic, commercial, and cultural scales of importance between Staten Island and the other four boroughs when you factor in the need to display routes and other such transit information.

Another key change is the reduction in the additional information at the bottom of the map. Removing the text—perhaps the bus connection information referenced in the article, but as a non-New Yorker I cannot say for certain—allows one the space to make the boroughs larger. This allows the rail map to be more a map about rails than about bus connections.

All in all, the map appears an improvement. I disagree with some of the colour choice and the drop shadowing of the lines over the map. But for making the map larger and more about being a map, I could live with those changes. On the other hand, I still prefer non-geographic maps for transit maps. And so I shall never quite understand why they dismissed the Vignelli map.


British Politics

The election has come and gone yet very little is resolved; the UK now has a hung parliament. Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems are now left to negotiate on the details of forming a coalition government, wherein two parties formally agree to cooperate in governing the country, or a minority government, wherein the Tories try to govern with the most seats but less than a majority. Or does Labour try to work with the Lib Dems and achieve something of a minority coalition government. The one certain thing about the election is that we now have loads of electoral data that wants to be visualised.

A few things at the top, as an American, despite my following of British politics, I am, well, an American. I am more familiar with the American system and so some of what may follow may be inaccurate. If at all, please do speak up. I should very much like to understand an electoral system that may now change entirely.

I wanted to point out a couple of sites real quick and some advantages and disadvantages thereof. Most of these were likely around before the election, however, I have been a tad busy with work and some other things to provide any commentary until now.

Auntie. The Beeb. The BBC. They have done a pretty good job at playing with four variables and the results. Are pie charts great? No. Not at all. However, they naturally limit us to 100% whereas bar charts displaying share are not necessarily as limiting—understanding that, yes, such things can be coded into the system.

BBC Sample
BBC Sample

Another interesting thing about the BBC’s electoral map is their cartographic decision to represent each constituency as a hexagon instead of overlaying the constituencies over a political map. This actually makes quite a lot of sense, however, if one considers that British constituencies are supposed to be rather equal in terms of population—not geographic area. And so while a traditional map will portray vast swathes of Tory blue and Lib Deb yellow, Labour counters in holding numerous visually insignificant constituencies in the inner cities of the UK.

Does the BBC need to represent each Commons seat as a square and arrange them to cross the majority line? Most likely not. However, it does keep with the idea of displaying each constituency as the boxes are placed next to the hexagons.

All in all, I think the BBC’s piece is quite effective. I do miss seeing the actual geography of the UK. But I understand how it is less useful in displaying the outcome of one’s playing with the electoral swing. Useful, but not necessarily needed, is the provision of several historical elections as comparisons to one’s playing.

The Guardian is next, in no particular order. Their swingometer is a bit less interesting than that of the BBC’s. Certainly in some senses it makes more sense, any bi-directional swing, while easier to grasp, ignore the complexities in having the Liberal Democrats as a viable third party and thus third axis. The circular swingometer attempts to rectify that. However, what the BBC does with their pie chart version is delve into the politics of the regional and fourth party candidates. For example, the Greens won a single constituency in southern England. In a hung parliament a single vote may be the difference between passing and defeating a bill. The BBC accounts for this while the Guardian does not.

Guardian Sample
Guardian Sample

What is particularly interesting about their calculator, however, is the ability to track individual seats and watch as one’s changes affect that particular constituency. As I play with the calculator, I can watch as Brighton Pavilion, where the Green party candidate won, changes from Labour to Conservative. However, nowhere in my exercises, have I managed to switch the seat to a fourth party candidate. The BBC solves this by not allowing one to select particular constituencies; one can only guess which seats they are looking at.

Also interesting about the Guardian’s version is their provision of different data displays. The default is a proportional representation, with each seat equating to a single square. However, they also allow one to view the results on a natural geographic level and strictly in terms of number of results and how close said results are to the magic number of 326. Additionally, the map allows you to filter for only that region of particular interest to you. If I only wish to look at, for example, the West Midlands, I can look at just the West Midlands without being distracted by additional regions. (The West Midlands provides another interesting example of being unable to factor in the role of fourth party players as Wyre Forest switched to the Conservatives, a result I cannot here duplicate.)

Three Views of One Constituency
Three Views of One Constituency

Overall, I really like how the Guardian provides different ways of viewing the data and the ability to track those changes to a particular constituency—even across the changes in data views. However, the Guardian is lacking at least in the ability to address the role of independents and regional parties. Perhaps this is do to a level of difficulty in predicting results at that level of granularity; something that is wholly understandable. However, that the BBC does just that is unfortunate for the rest of the Guardian’s piece because the rest of it is so nice. Even aesthetically, I find the Guardian’s to be appealing.

Next is the Sun. This, admittedly, is not so much a calculator but more a results map. And as such, it is effective in its simplicity. There is no messing about with swing or such—again probably because it is simply filling in constituencies by result. However, where the Sun’s piece fails is that to see any result, one needs to click a specific region. When selecting the UK, one can only see the outlines of the various regions of the UK. There appears to be no way of seeing UK-wide results.

The Sun Example
The Sun Example

Additionally, the data is presented strictly on a natural geography. This has the deficits as outlined above. And while the Guardian does present the results in such a fashion, it is not the only fashion in which data can be presented. Further, to see any results for a particular constituency, one must click all the way through the map before seeing data. None of this helps one access the actual data. And while one could say that the results are less important than showing the victor, one still needs to click into a specific region to see a victor thereby requiring a click whereas the other pieces provide results at an instant view.

Aesthetically, while both the BBC and Guardian favour a lighter, more open space the Sun’s piece feels trapped in a claustrophobic space surrounded by dark advertisements and flush against menus and heavy-handed navigation. All in all, I must confess that the Sun’s piece strikes me as an underwhelming piece that is less than wholly successful. It could have been made at least wholly successful if I needed not navigate into a particular region to mouseover a constituency.

The last piece I am going to look at is that from the Times. While there appears to be no way of playing with possible outcomes, the Times provides interesting ways of slicing the data in a more narrative structure. In terms of the map, the display suffers from being viewable only as the natural geography of the United Kingdom without being able to even toggle to a proportional view.

The Times Example
The Times Example

The additional data is displayed nicely in a side panel. I have to say that from an aesthetic standpoint, the Times’ mini site for the election results is my favourite. The black banner and main navigation sits well against the light colours used for the remainder of the piece. The serifed typeface for the numbers fits well with the newspaper feel and the black and serif combined works well to recall No. 10, Downing Street. A very nice touch and design decision.

As noted, the display fails in that only shows the data in a natural geographic sense. Now, the site overall provides links to news coverage of the event; these are accessible through a dropdown menu in the black banner. But, when clicked, these stories alter the map and highlight the particular constituencies in question. This approach provides a nice touch on straight data visualisation in linking the data to the editorial content of the newspaper. Which seats were taken or lost by independents? On a broad and filled-in map of the United Kingdom, I may not be able to know. But by clicking on that story, the map filters appropriately and I can click each constituency and get the story.
And so while the data visualisation is not necessarily on par with that of the BBC and the Guardian, the tie-in with the editorial emphasis—in my mind—makes up for the lack of detail in data visualisation. Data is wonderful, however, the narrative is what helps us make sense of what is otherwise just numbers and figures.

That editorial link and the subtle design decision to link the minisite to the sort of 10 Downing Street aesthetic makes the Times version my favourite and the best designed experience. Besides the lack of detail in the data visualisation aspect, the only other drawback is perhaps the load time for each change in display.

Fire Nancy Pelosi?

Sunday night, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that you may not have heard about. The bill goes towards addressing universal healthcare coverage for US citizens. As I said, you may not have heard of it…

The bill was passed largely along partisan lines with about 30 conservative Democrats joining the conservative Republicans in voting against the legislation. This morning, the GOP unveiled a new website called Fire Nancy Pelosi that seeks to capitalise on the anger against—and perhaps even hatred for—providing healthcare to all Americans by collecting donations to capture 40 House seats in the forthcoming mid-term election. The website uses a map of the United States to show “who wants to fire Nancy Pelosi most”. According to the map, states are ranked by donation totals.


Without attempting to talk about the politics, the problem with the map is that it is attempting to equate the state’s supposed anger against Speaker Pelosi and healthcare for Americans with the sum of donations per state. As of the time when I captured my screen, the interesting visual is that many traditional red states are blue and purple, e.g. West Virginia and North Dakota, whereas many traditional blue states are purple and red, e.g.California and Illinois. The problem however, is that one state may be able to provide more donations than another.

The most obvious difference is in terms of population. Without access to the data I cannot state facts about exact donation totals. However, the map does break down the states into deciles and so I have quickly pulled from Wikipedia some rankings on population (from 2009) and income per capita (from 2000). What is quite clear is that the states donating the least are among the states with the smallest population. Six of the Bottom 10 donating states are from the ten smallest states. Conversely, eight of the GOP’s Top 10 Donating States are among the ten largest states in the country by population.


If you compare income per capita, I find the message a bit more confusing, but still quite interesting. I do not claim to be a statistician and an analytic review of the numbers is a bit outside my area of expertise. However, for the Top 10, not a single state is ranked 40 or below in terms of income. And only one state is ranked in the 30s. One Top 10 Donating State is also found in the top ten by income per capita and a total of five of the Top 10 Donating States are in the top twenty by income per capita. Among the Bottom 10 Donating States we also find five states from the top twenty states by income per capita. However, we also find four of the last twenty states by income.

What strikes me is that the Top 10 Donating States have a larger population base from which to draw donations and, loosely, earn more per capita and thus, perhaps presumptuously, have more disposable income for contributions. The Bottom 10 Donating States have among the smallest populations and while some are seemingly quite wealthy, a significant number are among the least well-off in terms of income per capita.

And none of this critique discusses how the Top 10 Donating States use a bright and vivid red to draw attention whereas the Bottom 10 use a fairly dark and almost dull blue to push forward the bright red.

Visualising the Olympics

This weekend was pretty busy. We had another earthquake in Latin America—if one includes Haiti as part of Latin America—and the closing of the Olympics. Both have prompted some information graphics that are worth noting and comparing. I am going to leave the New York Times’ explanation of the Chilean earthquake to another post and instead focus here on the Olympics.

I wanted to look at three different visualisations of the Olympics, chiefly centred on the always popular medal count.

First we have CNN, which dedicates an entire special coverage site to the Winter Olympics. The site has the 2.0-esque feel with different boxes providing the user with different types of material: text-based stories, video, access to an interactive map, and a medal count. The map is what first strikes me because of its warning of reds and oranges and yellows. When I clicked to access the map, however, I felt disappointed in what appeared. And then I wonder why I am being warned about the US and Canada.


Generally speaking, a lot of the world’s landmass did not participate. And of those that did, not a lot won any medals. The vast emptiness of the grey map does a disservice to those much smaller areas of the world, particularly in northern and eastern Europe, that did win but are difficult to see. And, personally speaking, as a fan of Antarctica, I was disappointed to see they neither contributed athletes nor won any medals.

What does work, however, is the idea of highlighting those nations that competed. Perhaps not everybody knows that not every nation competes. The map could have been better executed or even a more stylised visualisation of percentages of regions that competed. 7 nations on the African continent, by my quick count, did compete, while three or four European countries did not. The point is important to make. The visualisation, however, does not support it as well it could.

The medal count is also quite interesting from CNN. The special coverage site maintains a snapshot of the leader board that links to the Sports Illustrated medal count. From Sports Illustrated, we are provided a simple table-driven display of who won what with little bar charts to highlight the total medal count. By clicking on a country you see the historical details of the country’s performance, again presented as a table with a bar chart for the total medals won in each year. What I find lacking, however is ranking the countries only by total medals. If someone is more interested in the best gold-medal-winning countries, one has to work to find the data.  A simple ability to sort by medal type would be a valuable addition.


An interesting situation arises, however, when looking at the historical figures. I am no expert on the Olympics. I did not watch any of them this year. Nor have I really watched them in the past. However, I do know that sports are added and subtracted. So, by clicking on Germany, for example, we see six medals won in 1936 versus the 36 in 2002. In 1936, however, I count only 51 medals total. In 2002, I count 234 medals. 12% compared to 15%. It does not seem so drastic an increase when put into context.

The BBC also has its own special coverage of the Olympics and has its own charts and tables to support the medal count. The main table they chose to use is interesting to me because it is particularly dark compared to the white and grey aesthetic of CNN and the New York Times (below). It certainly stands out. However, when I say ‘it’ I am referring not to the medal count but to the horizontal bands of dark greys and blacks. Between the dark colours, the small type for the medals, and the large flags to identify the countries, I find the medal count last. And when I find it difficult to sort by anything other than the default. But the default is not the total medal count as with CNN. Instead, it is the gold medal count. An interesting choice.


The chart the BBC provides for total medal winnings is also interesting. You can compare across countries, years, and medals. Some of the interface makes it a bit tricky. For several minutes I was trying to figure out which years were which at the outset only to finally realise that I was looking at all years. Perhaps if even all the years were a light weight and then the year selected made bold it would be easier. Or a more noticeable shift in colour.

And then I started trying to discern between countries and was left with three-letter abbreviations for each country. And I could not. Perhaps my inability to figure out which country was which stems from my being an American. But I do like to think that I am pretty good at identifying countries. I thought if I moused over one of the stacked bars the abbreviation would reveal its true meaning to me. But it did not. And so I am left looking at stacks of medals for countries I cannot identify.

The stacked bars are interesting for they are not ideal in comparing medal counts within each country—but the mouseover state provides the required detail. Switching to the country comparison makes it a tad easier, but one must still filter medal by medal. Then aesthetically I do not care for the polished, faux-three-dimensional appearance. Nor do I think most of the bars need to be as wide as they are.

Overall, I like where the BBC was trying to go with lots of cross-comparing and filtering to break down medal counts and historical performance. However, aesthetically, I find too many elements large, bulky and distracting. From large flags and small type to black–grey bands and thick stacked bars, the interface is a tad too cluttered to really allow what the BBC did to show.


Lastly, I want to look at the New York Times. Like CNN, the Times has created a map of the medal-winning countries in the Olympics, both current and historical. Unlike CNN’s map, however, the map by the Times is not based strictly on geography and each country is represented by a ‘bubble’ whose size corresponds to the number of medals won. I am not particularly keen on bubbles for displaying values. However, by eliminating those parts of the world not participating, the user can instead focus on the results. And those results, while not on a map, are spatially arranged to indicate their regional groupings. For example, the European countries are grouped together and coloured differently from those in North America. Switching tabs quickly reorganises the bubbles into rows ordered by numbers of medals won irrespective of geography.These are interesting design decisions and while I have reservations about using bubbles, the exact figures are provided as one moves his or her mouse over the bubble.


For the medal count, we see another table. The numbers are cleanly presented with small flags to the left—and without the bars of Sports Illustrated. Like both CNN and the BBC, one can dive deeper into a nation’s particular results by clicking on that nation. Yet, the experience of clicking into a nation is much smoother with the Times than with the others. No additional pages load and I am not watching my screen jump about to and fro. Instead, the additional information loads in a panel to the right of my click. It is a quick and clean transition that does not leave my frustrated by jumping browser windows.


Yet, the additional information loaded is quite text heavy. And with the exception of the headers for each sport, nothing in particular stands out. Not the sport, not the medal won, not the athlete who won the medal. While the quiet type is aesthetically pleasing, it lacks punch. Instead of reading the words gold, silver or bronze—since we are looking at the medals—perhaps just their icons could be used. Perhaps the athlete is in bold. I would just like something to which my eyes can be drawn in the table.


The New York Times effort is brilliant work. Clean and simple design brings out the information—even if such information is presented in the forms of bubbles and such. Tables are rather clean and easy to read. I think their effort a success. Not perfect, as I find the more detailed table insufficient in terms of visual distinction, but still a success.

All of the efforts are significant and worthy of mention. Each has some flaws and each has some strengths. And admittedly, each is more complex and detailed than I have described and commented upon here. But I have to stop somewhere.